Giltz, Michael, The Christian Science Monitor
How did we get from "Show Boat" to "Shrek the Musical"? A well- researched look at the history of American musical theater.
When a book about musical theater is called Showtime, you might
expect a little razzle-dazzle. But Larry Stempel, an associate
professor of music at Fordham University, hasn't spent 30 years and
much of his adult life just to entertain you. His desire is to
instruct: "I thought I might take a more scholarly approach than
that of the few books on the subject then available," Stempel
writes in his preface.
Indeed. In the introduction, Stempel exhaustively mentions almost
every major book on musical theater and what he thought they lacked
from an academic perspective. Then he spends a great deal of time,
not unreasonably, in wondering exactly what we mean by "the
"The term itself is hardly satisfactory...," Stempel writes.
"So it is probably best to begin by defining the musical broadly as
a type of performance made up of the basic creative processes that
all such practices have in common. These include, above all, talking
(almost always); singing (most often accompanied by unseen
instruments); and dancing (generally mixed and interspersed with
other kinds of movement). The Czech theorist Ivo Osolsobe put it well
when he summarized the subject of his 'Semiotics Of The Musical
Theatre' in such irreducible terms as The Theatre Which Speaks,
Sings, and Dances."
I'll spare you his labored, unnecessary explanation that while the
book is roughly chronological, he must admit that within chapters a
certain jumping back and forth in time is necessary to tell a
Those looking for an entertaining overview of the musical, with
vivid characters and great shows of the past vividly described should
look elsewhere. Few Broadway figures come especially to life on the
page, despite the occasional familiar anecdote, like David
Merrick's headline-grabbing announcement of the death of director
Gower Champion on the opening night of "42nd Street."
But how does "Showtime" fare at what it intends, as an academic
work, essentially a textbook?
Here, Stempel is on firmer ground. He begins with an acknowledgment
that even before Columbus arrived singing and dancing were common in
numerous ceremonies. Happily, we move swiftly forward... to Colonial
times. Stempel then details everything from "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
(a de facto musical because it often contained so many songs and
dances in its various forms) to minstrel shows to extravaganzas like
"The Black Crook," the mega-musical of its day. …